We asked new graduate Andrea Newman* to tell us a bit about her thesis, which was on energy demand and how it can be met. Here’s what she told us
When it came to choosing my dissertation title, I knew that I wanted to look at something practical – something that I felt was ‘useful’, and interesting of course. Of the list of topic areas suggested, Energy was by far the one I most connected with: I had a vague notion that as a future career I’d quite like to be involved in renewable energy generation. And so I ended up with the title: The Future of Energy. In the first half I examined the current energy demand in transportation, homes and industry, where our current supply comes from, simple models of global peak oil and whether energy-saving measures could provide a serious contribution to the problems which arise with growing energy demand and levelling/falling oil production. In the second I examined the current generating power and future estimates of a range of alternatives to oil. I didn’t have the space to examine greenhouse gas emissions, or people’s issues with wind turbines or nuclear power, so, as a scientist I was looking at raw numbers of actual energy producible.
I keep in touch enough with climate science to not be that surprised to find the general consensus that the peak in oil generation would be reached in the next decade, although when plotting data I found the dip in data caused by the recession, which made exact estimation difficult. I did find it hard to understand how some American journals could look at the same data and then insist that they will continue to produce oil at a growing rate, without any justification for how they plan to achieve this.
I was surprised at how large energy consumption in the UK varied daily and seasonally. I performed calculations using data from the Department of Climate Change which showed that although 61% of domestic energy is being used in heating, fitting all remaining houses with our current loft and cavity insulations might reduce consumption by less than 1%. I now appreciate how important the development of better insulation materials is.
I was also surprised at the amount of energy flying takes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that it is bad for the environment, but I’d always thought it was something to do with depositing gases more effectively. But actually, per km it uses almost 100 times more energy than a train. That’s absolutely phenomenal. It suggests to me that even if we could somehow make planes run on non-polluting fuel, we’d need an awful lot of it. Encouraging train use might be a better idea.
Moving onto the alternatives section, I took a varied approach as I wanted to work out current usage and feasibility on global and UK scales, and so be able to compare them, but had to work round gaps in available data. Hydropower, particularly tidal power in the UK has good potential with our extensive coastline, but because it has to be built on a large-scale, hasn’t managed to gain the massive initial investment needed. One of the greatest benefits of tidal power would be the ability to predict the time of generation, and control it to some extent, allowing some of the flexibility which we’ve enjoyed with fossil fuels. The lack of development of this technology and the conviction that we will struggle with the concept of only being able to use our computers when it’s sunny or windy, led me to the conclusion that nuclear power will also have to play a role in our future energy mix.
Wind power was particularly difficult to find generation details. Ireland has a cool website which shows the amount of energy coming from their wind farms. For the time I monitored it, these numbers tended to be rather small, and the challenge in finding generation statistics led me to believe, although not as strongly as the numerous wind sceptics I came across, that the pre-production estimates were rather over exaggerated.
The aspect of my discoveries that shocked me most was the rate of increase in alternatives needed. Although I’ve been aware of the warnings that this is the only moment to do something about our current use of energy, until I cranked through the numbers and realised that, for example, the amount of energy we get from hydroelectricity would have to increase at a rate of more than 33% every single year to meet the increasing energy demand while keeping our oil usage flat, I’d never really realised the immediacy of the statement. This rises to 100% a year if we reduce oil consumption as predicted by the peak-oil models. Solar panels make such a tiny contribution to current energy production that they would have to increase at more than 400% a year, keeping oil consumption steady. While the recent increase in domestic solar panels is obviously a good thing, we need to think on a much bigger scale.
So ultimately, I didn’t conclude anything radically different from what you hear from many scientists: the time of cheap, abundant oil is ending. Most current energy saving measures are, sadly, a bit of a token gesture, so we need immediate, massive investment in alternatives (and particularly in energy storage), just to continue to have enough energy to go around. Just because people have said it before does make the fact that we are heading for an energy crisis any less important, and I feel more convicted to do stuff about it, having worked through the numbers myself.